Survival and Laughter in Tunis

by Allen Hibbard


At first I could not make out the messages on the signs, for the writing was faint and small. I had seen ten or twenty students enter the room and seat themselves at the back of the hall just as I was wrapping up my discussion of Moby Dick, and had welcomed them. When the signs popped up, I stopped my speech, saying that I was sorry but I couldn't read these messages that were so obviously meant for me. The audience turned to take in the larger scene, and the conference organizer, Hechmi Trabelsi, rose, moved closer to the students, and read the signs, written in English:

"U.S. OUT OF IRAQ"
"DOWN WITH ISRAELI AND U.S. AGGRESSION"
"AMERICA NOT WELCOME IN TUNISIA"
"NO TO U.S. IMPERIALISM"

I acknowledged these messages and said that I too had serious problems with official U.S. policies and that I would be glad to talk with them sometime later if they liked. Professor Trabelsi went on to tell the students that if they had been at the opening of my talk they would have heard me address these issues, and that if they had heard my talk, they would have felt more fully my critical stance.

I had prefaced my talk at the University of Tunis's survival conference, "'And I only am escaped alone to tell thee': The Rhetoric of Survival Narratives," by stating that I, like many academics in the U.S., objected to this war and feared that it would have disastrous consequences for all. I went on to say that what concerned me most was that the wall of fear and distrust between Arab/Islamic countries and the U.S. was becoming thicker and firmer, making it at once more difficult and more necessary to cross these boundaries. I then began to lay out the characteristics of survival narratives, beginning with the Book of Job and continuing with a discussion of Moby Dick in which I offered a critique of Ahab's motives for risking the lives of a whole boatload of people just to fulfill his own personal agenda and noted that the Pequod never would have been out tracking down and slaughtering whales had it not been for a demand for whale oil back in New England.

"Shall we move on to Heart of Darkness?" I asked after a brief moment of silence.

After presenting my case that Conrad's novel could be considered as a survival narrative, I went on to talk about various other works, such as John Hersey's Hiroshima, Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's In Search of Walid Masoud.

Early in the fall of 2002 when I began to make arrangements to participate in two conferences in Tunisia (one on laughter at Manouba University as well as the one on survival at the University of Tunis), I could not have foreseen that my stay would coincide with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, though certainly the war juggernaut had by then gained an almost irrevocable momentum. As U.N. weapons inspectors scoured the Iraqi landscape looking for weapons of mass destruction and U.S. leaders rattled sabers, amassed troops, and warned of war, I wondered whether my trip would become one very small casualty of these planned actions. About a month before my scheduled departure (April 9, 2002), the State Department, which was sponsoring my trip, proceeded to make final arrangements, asking me to acknowledge that I had read posted travel advisories and reminding me that the trip could be cancelled at 24 hours notice. Meanwhile, during this time of uncertainty I continued preparing the talks I was slated to deliver.

Throughout the fall and spring I was in touch with Tunisian colleagues by e-mail. Their responses were always prompt, positive and professional. To one of the organizers of the conference on laughter, Sadok Bouhlila, I wrote of my previous experiences in the Arab world—four years teaching at the American University in Cairo (1985-89) and two years as a Fulbright lecturer at Damascus University (1992-94), as well as a number of trips to Morocco and Jordan. I believe I also mentioned that my grandfather, a Quaker, had worked with the American Friends Service Committee and the U.N. with the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in 1948. Once the war broke out, I assured my Tunisian colleagues that I still planned to come, unless I was told otherwise. "We will consider your visit a sign of peace and friendship," Professor Bouhlila wrote back. Still, as I prepared for my trip I couldn't help wonder how the war would affect my time in Tunis.

Despite overwhelming, strong opposition to U.S. actions in Iraq, I was warmly welcomed. One planned engagement in Sousse, however, had been cancelled because of the tense political atmosphere. And, efforts to get me to lecture in Kairouan were finally abandoned out of concerns that my talks would either trigger demonstrations or be boycotted. As a tangible, accessible symbol, my presence was apt to act as a lightning rod for people's outrage, frustration and anger.

The theme of survival was of more than mere academic interest to those who organized the conference. It spoke to real conditions they endured day after day. Professor Trabelsi, in his opening remarks, had proclaimed that he saw no place for himself in this New World Order. Others, in informal conversations, echoed this sentiment, noting that they felt squeezed between U.S. global capitalism and repressive Arab governments—Islamic or secular.

Especially to the point was a paper entitled "Survival in the Kingdom of 'Publish or Perish'" presented by Professor Tahar Labassi, head of the English Dept at the University of Tunis. He addressed the particular, pressing conditions third world intellectuals face: low salaries, huge classes, unwieldy bureaucracies, inadequate library resources, etc. He spoke of the difficulties he and his colleagues have keeping up with trends in their fields, and competing with scholars in the West to publish in the most prestigious journals. I learned more about their challenges as I talked with Tunisian colleagues informally at a favorite watering hole, a place called Shilling in downtown Tunis. I learned that there was a publication requirement of 180 pages for professors seeking promotion to the rank of maitre conference. Two conference participants were facing promotion this year. In their desperate scramble to acquire the requisite number of pages, they were betting that their papers would be published in the conference proceedings. And, I soon learned that I would be expected to play a role in this.

At one point I was told that Michel Foucault had taught at the University of Tunis in the mid-sixties. That would have been just a decade after independence. I tried to imagine what the place would have been like then. Likely there would then have been a mood of optimism and possibility.

Late in the evening, I would return to the Hotel Belvedere, turn on the television, and catch up on news of the war. U.S. forces were closing in on Baghdad. I flipped back and forth between CNN and Al Jezira. It was as though I was seeing two different wars, or at least the same war through very different, opposing vantage points. On CNN, the story of a young Iraqi boy, maimed for life, concentrated on how the Americans had helped him get medical treatment in Kuwait. Al Jezira focused on the causes of his injuries—U.S. bombing—and the fact that he had lost his whole family in those attacks.

One evening I saw the footage of Iraqis looting the priceless treasures of the Baghdad National Museum and nearly cried. I knew that my wife, back home, would be in tears, for she is a passionate lover of art. I remember how enthralled she was with the ancient Assyrian sculptures in the museum in Aleppo, Syria.

And on April 14, the libraries went up in flames: first the National Library and Archives, then the library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Endowment. (Robert Fisk's fine article "Library books, letters and priceless documents are set ablaze in final chapter of the sacking of Baghdad," in The Independent, April 15, 2003, relates this sad, sad story.) American soldiers simply did not act. Meanwhile, we were shown pictures of U.S. forces standing guard to protect the Ministry of Oil.

The next day, one of my Tunisian contacts who had been regularly sharing with me contrasting pictures in the U.S. and Arab press showed me a photo that had appeared that day in an Arab newspaper. An Iraqi ruffian sitting on the shoulders of what appeared to be a U.S. soldier was vandalizing what appeared to be art treasures in the National Museum. I didn't want to believe it. I knew, however, that those who saw it would believe it. And, even if the photo was not authentic, it spoke a kind of symbolic truth.

What would survive? I wondered, and thought of another cataclysmic clash between two cultures that had taken place just a stone's throw away, in Carthage. The Romans decided to attack and eliminate the city in 146 BC. A book I had brought along, Carthage: The Punic City by M'hamed Hassine Fantar, quotes Cato, arguing for war before the Roman senate: "I indicate to the Senate the wars which need to be undertaken: seeing the evil designs nourished by Carthage for many years now, I would declare on that city well in advance, for I will always fear Carthage as long as I have not heard the news of its destruction." Then, we have words of the Roman general Scipio: "Rome did not want to reveal her resolve to destroy Carthage until the day the Carthaginians were completely incapable of putting up any opposition." Indeed, the Romans sacked the city, leaving few traces but in legend and history. Rome managed to secure and maintain its position as the undisputed hegemonic power around the Mediterranean and beyond for several centuries before its empire began to wane. Perhaps the waning begins with the kind of brute exercise of force seen in Carthage.

Once the survival conference had concluded, I turned my attention to my presentation for the conference on laughter, "Laughter as a Mode of Cultural Transcendence: The Homsi Jokes of Syria." As I began to think about my talk, I became anxious. How appropriate was it for me to be sharing Syrian jokes with Tunisians? Would it seem as though I was laughing at, not with, the other? As we know, group or ethnic humor is a delicate matter. I shared my anxieties with a newly-made friend and colleague, Abdennebi ben Beya, whom I had first met the evening of my arrival at the hotel reception desk. He had met and brought another guest speaker for the survival conference, Lieve Spaas, who had been on the same flight I was on, from Paris. Abdennebi and I hit it off immediately, sensing a kind of innate sympathy and potential connection. He had given a very lyrical, poetic talk at the survival conference. As I talked more with him, I learned that he had studied at Lille, then Emory in Atlanta with Cathy Caruth, one of the central figures in trauma studies.

Abdennebi invited me over to his home and we shared our respective anxieties. I met his charming young son and lovely, bright wife, who had prepared a spicy lamb stew. He read portions of the paper he was planning to deliver for the laughter conference, "The Diverse Faces of Laughter." One of the first sections was titled "Why I am so tactless and unfunny," a parody of Ecce Homo that would likely be lost on most if not all. He launched into a provocative challenge of the keynote speaker, Simon Critchley, and myself, representing the "coalition" and the sanctified, holy traditions of the West.

Like other great satirists, Abdennebi spared no one from his poignant jabs. He challenged his own colleagues, particularly their stubborn adherence to the western literary canon, invoking the names of various third world writers and their critiques.

Abdennebi invited me to spend the night and kindly offered me use of his computer, library and office at home so that I could revise my paper. I chose, instead, to go back to the hotel and pen my words in private. "Ah, you Americans and your need for private space!" he ribbed.

The night before the conference was to begin I returned to the hotel and found a note from Simon Critchley (now of Essex University, soon to move to the New School in New York) asking me if I would like to join him for drinks later in the evening. He had just been to a conference in Israel where the intellectual atmosphere had been so vibrant, despite or because of the impossible moral conundrums lying at the very basis of that state. In various conversations interspersed in and around the conference, we shared impressions of the Tunisian scene, noting the uneven quality of papers, the backbiting and petty jealousies, the lack of organization, the position we were in as Western academics, and so on.

Manouba University is situated to the west of Tunis, surrounded by agricultural lands. As I walked through the campus I saw signs for a Baudrillard speech ten days later, titled something like "The event which was not an Event." I thought of his essay on the Gulf War. How timely and appropriate. Simon delivered his talk, "Why the Super Ego is Your Amigo," drawing from the concluding chapter of his recent book On Humor. When it came my turn, Abdnabbi whispered in my ear, "Make us laugh!" To my relief, people did laugh--with me, not at me, it seemed.

And, when it came his turn, Abdennebi dramatically moved to the podium, consciously playing Caliban against a symbolic Prospero: "You taught me, a poor backward peasant, to read and write your language. Now I will fling it back to you, with curses and biting criticisms." In a marvelous parody of Shelley's "Ozymandias" he proclaimed:

My name is Abdennebi ben Beya.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

I sensed a palpable uneasiness as he proceeded through his talk. People squirmed, likely worried as much about how Simon and I would take it as anything else. The person sitting next to me left in the middle of the speech. Abdennebi cut his talk short, sensing the nervousness of his audience. Truth and honesty are often hard to swallow. It is often so much easier to lie, to smile, to keep on the mask.

By the last day everyone was clearly tired. At the conclusion, participants met to sum up and discuss the theme and time of next year's conference. (Utopia seemed to generate the most interest.) I had to duck out quickly to do a radio interview. With Ann Donick and Khalid Souissi (of the American Embassy), who had so superbly engineered and executed all arrangements during my time in Tunis, I rode off in a black Mercedes. Friends and colleagues looked on. I thought of how the scene might look in their eyes, and the final scene of Paul Bowles's novel, The Spider's House, set in Fez at the time of the Moroccan independence movement in 1955, came to mind. It is given to us from the perspective of a young Moroccan, Amar. He watches on as the two Americans who have befriended him drive off in a large automobile.

"The car moved ahead uncertainly, then it gathered speed. He knew they were looking out the rear window, waving to him, but he stood still, seeing only his feet in their sandals, and the black tar beside them. The driver turned into the highway, shifted gears."

Amar was running after the car. It was still there, ahead of him, going further away and faster. He could never catch it, but he ran because there was nothing else to do. And as he ran, his sandals made a terrible flapping noise on the hard surface of the highway, and he kicked them off, and ran silently and with freedom. Now for a moment he had the exultant feeling of flying along the road behind the car. It would surely stop. He could see the two heads in the window's rectangle, and it seemed to him they were looking back.

The car had reached a curve in the road; it passed out of sight. He ran on. When he got to the curve the road was empty.

By this time I had received clear signals that I would likely be invited back, for another conference or for a longer stay. The head of the English Department at Manouba spoke to me about coming for at least a year, perhaps on a Fulbright. Was this what I wanted to do at this point of my life? I'd already spent a number of years in "lesser developed" Arab countries. Why I did these things? Was I a masochist? as Abdennebi suggested at one point.

Perhaps I should just stay home. It would certainly be more comfortable. There are more resources, relatively little corruption, open spaces, friends and family. I would not have to account for my country's actions on a daily basis. Nor would I be so keenly reminded that the privileged position I have enjoyed comes at the expense of others.

No, that is precisely the problem. We in the U.S., I think, have not wanted to look at the world. Some, fearing the chaos beyond our borders, favor building ever higher walls around our country and conducting preventative military campaigns against targets that might, in the future, pose a threat to us. There was a moment, it seems to me, just after September 11, when we began asking ourselves "Why Does Everyone Hate Us (U.S.)?" Then we began a military campaign in Afghanistan, the drum beat for war against Iraq soon followed, silencing, indeed squelching considered, sustained reflection and soul-searching.

I am now back tending my own garden--pruning, cleaning gutters, weeding, mowing, planting. Faces and voices of those I met in Tunisia float in my consciousness: Taher, Abdennebi, Jalel, Khalid, Ridha, Mouhiba, Lelia, Robert, Simon, Ann, Lieve and others. It's as though there has been no war in Iraq. Gasoline prices have dropped at least ten percent, so likely most people think the war has been a success. It doesn't seem to have affected anyone. We see pictures of soldiers returning from the war and embracing their loved ones. CNN is on to the next stories: The Scott Peterson trial and SARS.

As I reread W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk for the Backgrounds to Modernism course I've been teaching this semester, I come upon this passage and pause:

How little we really know of these millions,--of their daily lives and longings, of their homely joys and sorrows, of their real shortcomings and the meaning of their crimes! All this we can only learn by intimate contact with the masses, and not by wholesale arguments covering millions separate in time and space, and differing widely in training and culture.

The same could be said now about our knowledge of the Arab world. I fear that in the years to come we will pay heavily for our latest military campaigns on the fringes of the American Empire if we do not quickly reassess our policies and actions in the Middle East and elsewhere.

I recall the epigraphs I had selected for my first book on Paul Bowles:

"Hear the other side, see the other side."
_St. Augustine

"Frightfulness is never more than an unfamiliar pattern."
_Paul Bowles, "Call at Corazón"

2004 - Allen Hibbard

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Middle Tennessee State University
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